Clashes between two rival tribes in Sudan's turbulent Darfur region have left scores dead and wounded over the past week, the latest sign that the conflict there could become a full-fledged civil war.
The four-month war between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has been mainly focused in the capital, Khartoum, where the two sides have fought to a standstill with neither side able to gain the upper hand in an urban conflict in which the army is routinely using air strikes and heavy artillery shelling.
The conflict spread to Darfur in the early stages of the war but climaxed in June when RSF fighters and allied Arab militias launched attacks against members of an ethnic African tribe in the town of Al Geneina, killing hundreds and forcing thousands to flee to neighbouring Chad.
The latest violence, however, pits armed men from the Arab tribe of Ben Halba, which is known to support the RSF, and the Salamat. The fighting took place in localities south-west of the city of Nyala, capital of South Darfur state.
Thousands of villagers fled the area as a result of the fighting, according to local officials and news reports. A local market and several petrol stations were set ablaze in the fighting, they said.
The death toll from the fighting rose to 84 by Saturday, according to Ahmed Babekr, a member of the local administration in Darfur. At least 60 others have been wounded, he said.
“This is an extension of the war in Khartoum in addition to the tensions caused by disputes over pastures,” said Mr Babekr. “Skirmishes between the army and the RSF in the area are fuelling the conflict.”
Clashes between the Sudanese army and the RSF have flared periodically in Nyala. The latest bout of violence saw both the army and RSF firing artillery into residential neighbourhoods, witnesses told Reuters. Fighting has damaged electricity, water, and telecoms networks, they said.
At least eight people were killed on Saturday alone, according to the Darfur Bar Association, a national human rights monitor. In recent days, fighting has extended 100km to the west of Nyala, in the Kubum area, killing dozens, according to witnesses.
The bar association said Arab tribesmen in RSF vehicles attacked the area, burning the market and raiding the police station. The fighting killed 24 people, it said.
South Darfur activist Siddiq Hasaballh said fighting was continuing on Sunday in South Darfur, a traditional stronghold of Arab tribes that are mostly loyal to the RSF.
“What's happening here could eventually be much worse than what took place at Al Geneina. It's a kind of mindless violence that has trapped many at their homes. The sound of gunfire does not stop,” he said.
The UN mission said last week it was “gravely concerned” by the effects on civilians from fighting between the RSF and the army in the areas of west, south and central Darfur.
“This is deeply worrying and could quickly engulf the country in a prolonged ethnic conflict with regional spillovers,” Martha Pobee, assistant UN secretary general in charge of Africa, said.
News of the latest violence in South Darfur state first surfaced on Saturday, when an online news service – Darfur 24 – reported that days of tribal clashes left 120 people dead. It said the fighting led to the closure of many roads in the area.
The details in the report by Darfur 24, which is partially sympathetic to rebel groups in the area, could not be independently confirmed.
Darfur was the battlefield of a ruinous civil war in the 2000s that killed 300,000 people and displaced 2.5 million. The RSF's forerunner, the notorious Janjaweed militia, fought on the government's side in that war, which began when ethnic Africans took up arms to end discrimination by the ruling elite in the Arab and mainly Muslim north of Sudan.
The army has mostly stood by and watched since violence spilt over into Darfur, where the roots of conflict between Arab and African tribes lie over land, pastures and water. A peace deal between the military and several Darfur rebel groups was signed in October 2020. Its provisions have not been implemented, leaving the causes of conflict in place until today.
Sudan's continuing conflict has had an effect on the vast Afro-Arab country not dissimilar to the earlier war in Darfur.
Essentially a fight for military and political domination between two rival generals – army chief Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan and RSF commander Gen Mohammed Dagalo – the conflict has forced more than four million people to flee their homes, including about one million who crossed into neighbouring nations.
The fighting also created a humanitarian crisis with more than 20 million people now facing a “high level of food insecurity”, according to the UN.
Last month, the world body warned that the fighting had the potential to develop into a full-fledged civil war enveloping vast swathes of the country as well as destabilising the region. The US and Saudi Arabia, who jointly sought to mediate a truce, have said neither side appears willing to end the war.